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I Do! I Do!
Book and Lyrics by Tom Jones, Music by Harvey Schmidt
Directed and Choreographed by Michael Hamilton
STAGES St. Louis
June 6 and 7, 2018

Corrine Melançon, Steve Isom
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is kicking off their new season with one production that’s also, in a way, two. A classic two-person musical tracing the history of a marriage, I DO! I DO! is doing something slightly different this year, in that it has not one cast, but two. On alternating days, audiences can see the “Purple Cast” or the “Red Cast”. The show itself is entertaining with a slight, somehwhat problematic book and a strong, memorable score, ultimately serving as an excellent showcase for the performers in both casts, each bringing their unique talents and chemistry to this production.

The story is essentially “marriage in a nutshell”–a look at a 50 year marriage that tries to do a little too much and is somewhat dated in its portrayal (even as a period piece), although it has its strong moments, particularly in the songs. Following the story of Agnes and Michael from their wedding day until the day they move out their house, the story touches on a lot of familiar marriage tropes–the honeymoon stage, new parenthood, disillusionment, temptations to infidelity, midlife crises, growing old together, and more. It’s a fun show, for the most part, with catchy songs and some insightful moments and a genuinely touching finale, but the show also tries to cover too many issues sometimes, to the point where they are only given cursory and/or stereotypical treatment, and conflicts get brought up and resolved much too easily, especially at the end of Act 1. Still, the second act works a lot better, although it’s also filled with its share of cliches. For the most part, though, this is just a fun show, here as a showase for its performers and to highlight some memorable songs from Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt.

Essentially, the biggest strength of a show like this is in casting, and this production boasts not one, but two excellent pairs in the leads. Both casts feature one local performer and one New York-based performer, and both casts bring different strengths and insights into the material. The “Purple Cast”–Corrine Melançon as Agnes and Steve Isom as Michael–and the “Red Cast”–Kari Ely and David Schmittou–are excellent in their own ways, with some moments standing out more with one cast, and some with the other. Both Michaels, Isom and Schmittou, have excellent stage presence and carry off the “song-and-dance” aspects of the role well, with Schmittou displaying especially strong chemistry with Ely in the “older” scenes in Act 2, and Isom standing out more in the “gleefully self-important” and smarmy moments for the character, such as Act 1’s “A Well-Known Fact”.  The biggest contrast is in the portrayers of Agnes, with Melançon the more polished singer and dancer, shining in moments like Act 1’s “Flaming Agnes”, and Ely bringing a more reflective portrayal, making Agnes’s journey through midlife self-doubt in Act 2–embodied in the song “What Is a Woman” and the scenes that follow–especially convincing. Both couples portray convincing chemistry, portraying the aging of the characters through the years well, and both do the best they can to make the somewhat clunky resolution to Act 1 work, with the “Purple Cast” doing a slightly more convincing job, but really, that scene is the script’s problem and no matter how great the performers are, it’s still kind of hard to believe. The strength here in general is in the connection between Agnes and Michael as a couple, and both pairs portray that well in their own unique ways.

The technical aspects here are simple but well-done, although with at least one confusing costume choice. Michael Hamilton’s direction and choreography are energetic and well-paced, and James Wolk’s set–which is essentially just a few furniture pieces and a bed that slides on and offstage as needed–is simple and effective, and Sean M. Savoie’s lighting is also excellent. Brad Musgrove’s costumes are, for the most part, meticulously detailed and period-accurate covering the first 50 years of the 20th century, although Agnes’s costume and wig in the first part of Act 2 look more like something out of the 1970s than the 1920s. Still, for the most part the production values are strong, as is usual for STAGES. I also like the idea–apparently used in all productions of this show–of the performers’ applying their own age makeup on stage to prepare for the show’s conclusion.

I DO! I DO! is a fun musical comedy look at a marriage. It’s not particularly deep or profound, although it has some poignant moments, but mostly, it’s just fun, and an excellent showcase for its stars. At STAGES, there are four stars being showcased, and I’m glad to have seen both casts. It’s an entertaining show no matter which cast you see.

Kari Ely, David Schmittou
Photo by Peter Wochniak, ProPhotoSTL
STAGES St. Louis

STAGES St. Louis is presenting I DO! I DO! at the Robert G. Reim Theatre in Kirkwood until July 1, 2018

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Celebration
Words by Tom Jones, Music by Harvey Schmidt
Directed by Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor
New Line Theatre
September 30, 2016

Sean Michael, Kent Coffel, Zachary Allen Farmer Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Sean Michael, Kent Coffel, Zachary Allen Farmer
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

Celebration is an unusual musical, but unusual musicals are what New Line Theatre does best.  Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s 1969 “experimental” musical is the latest production at this (pun intended) celebrated St. Louis theatre company, and true to form it’s a memorable, colorful, extremely well-sung production. I also can’t imagine better casting for this particular show.

The structure of this show is highly symbolic and allegorical. With four main characters basically representing the four seasons, it’s based on ancient legends and rituals and framed as the preparation for a New Year’s Eve party, ushering in a new year as a mysterious newcomer arrives to shake up the status quo. The master of ceremonies for this story is Potemkin (Kent Coffel), a rough-around-the-edges trickster who introduces the audience to the setting of the play, a somewhat bare city street corner that becomes the background for the ensuing celebration. The story continues as a newcomer arrives, identified only as “Orphan” (Sean Michael). Orphan grew up in a more rural setting, and he’s arrived ostensibly to save the land and garden where he grew up from a ruthless, filthy-rich businessman, William Rosebud Rich (Zachary Allen Farmer), who seems to own basically everything. He also meets Angel (Larissa White), an aspiring singer and actress who attracts the attentions of both Orphan and Rich, and although she’s attracted to Orphan, she sees Rich as more advantageous to furthering her own career goals.  The struggle between Orphan and Rich for power and influence is the central conflict, with Angel, Potemkin, and the chorus of revelers caught in the middle.

Structure-wise, this is an intriguing show, with memorable characters and a fairly straightforward theme, although the ending is extremely abrupt. I’m also not entirely comfortable with the idea of the woman being the main “prize” to be fought for among the two male adversaries. Still, it’s all symbolism, and the characters are well-realized. The atmosphere is very reminiscent of other shows from its era, especially musically, with memorable musical numbers such as the title song, “My Garden”, and “It’s You Who Makes Me Young.” New Line’s production also has the benefit of what I consider to be ideal casting of the main parts.

The casting is so great, in fact, that I can’t easily imagine who else could have played these roles. Coffel, as the crusty, wily, opportunistic and worldly-wise Potemkin, is full of energy and mischievous charm. He makes a fitting tour guide to the proceedings. Michael’s Orphan is amiable, appropriately naive and optimistic at first, but he also portrays a believable sense of growth and determination as the story progresses. He also has a great tenor voice that suits his songs particularly well. White, as Angel, is also excellent, with a strong voice and believable chemistry with Michael. She makes the character’s dilemma easier to believe. Last but definitely not least is Farmer, who hams it up with gleeful abandon as the slimy, entitled Rich, who clearly sees himself as the hero of the story even though his time is clearly running out. The interplay between all four characters is a major highlight of this production, and they are backed by an excellent ensemble of rowdy revelers to contribute to the overall primal atmosphere of the show.

Visually, this production is spectacular and richly detailed. The somewhat sparse set by Rob Lippert –essentially a series of stacked platforms with a trash can and street lamp at center–is an excellent backdrop for the action of the show, and Sarah Porter’s costumes are truly spectacular. From Rich’s shiny bathrobe and Donald Trump wig, to Orphan’s more simple rustic garb, to the outlandish costumes of Angel and the revelers, everything suits the production just right. Along with Kenneth Zinkl’s striking lighting, Scott L. Schoonover’s distinctive masks for the revelers, Michelle Sauer’s energetic choreography, and the excellent band led by Sarah Nelson, the theme and mood of the production is stylishly presented, lending much to the overall entertainment value of the production and augmenting the performances of the excellent cast.

Overall, I would say Celebration is an entertaining production inventively staged. It’s not for everyone, as like almost all of New Line’s shows, this is for mature audiences. For the most part, Celebration is a witty, energetic, and extremely well-cast show that’s well worth checking out.

Sean Michael, Larissa White Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Sean Michael, Larissa White
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting Celebration at the Marcelle Theatre in Grand Center until October 22, 2016.

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